Putt-Putt Golf Courses of America, Inc. History

Address:
3007 Fort Bragg Road
Fayetteville, North Carolina 28303
U.S.A.

Telephone: (910) 485-7131
Fax: (910) 485-1122

Website:
Private Company
Incorporated: 1954
Employees:
Sales: $100 million (1996 est.)
SICs: 7992 Public Golf Courses; 7996 Amusement Parks

Company History:

Putt-Putt Golf Courses of America, Inc. is the franchiser of more than 275 miniature golf locations in 34 states and seven countries outside the United States. Some of these facilities were Putt-Putt Golf & Games Fun Centers that included video game rooms, bumper boats, batting cages, Go-Kart raceways, and "Putt-Putt TotalPlay." The company also was sponsoring a professional miniature golf circuit.

Promoting the Putt-Putt Concept, 1954-76

The founder of Putt-Putt was Don Clayton, a native of Fayetteville, North Carolina, who said he ran away from home at the age of 11 because his drunken stepfather tried to shoot him. Clayton said he spent the next few years as the ward of a brothel, adding "it was the Depression, women did anything for money." After attending the University of North Carolina on a football scholarship, he built a successful insurance business in the years immediately following World War II. He was on the verge of a nervous breakdown from overwork in the spring of 1954, however, when his doctor ordered him to take a month off work.

A golf enthusiast, Clayton dropped in on a miniature golf course in Fayetteville but was disgusted. "You had to hit the ball through spokes and spikes and over windmills and through waterfalls--it was just junk," he later recalled. "They gave you dirt and goat's hair to putt on and after you hit the ball, you had to pat down the goat's hair with your hands or feet." When he finished the course, Clayton told his brother and putting partner, "I could do better than this." Challenged to do so, he designed 18 different holes that night--without pipes or spokes or windmills or waterfalls to hit through--and took a $100, one-year lease on a vacant lot he had spotted on the way home. The next morning Clayton bought some lumber, hired some laborers, and began laying out his first course. Three weeks later, he was in business, charging 25 cents a round.

The beginnings of miniature golf are obscure, but the first course is believed to have been laid out in 1916 in Pinehurst, North Carolina. The game became a craze in 1930, when more than 25,000 courses may have been built, but interest rapidly dwindled. Clayton's no-frills, all-skills version sparked a revival for miniature golf. Some 192 people showed up at his course on the first night, 344 on the second night, and 744 on the third. It took only 29 nights for Clayton to pay off the construction cost of $5,200. Soon he was working harder than ever, running his insurance business again by day and preparing a new Putt-Putt course at night. After this second course was completed, he lined up backers to put up money for more. At the end of two years there were eight Putt-Putt courses in North and South Carolina.

Clayton also was besieged by admirers and well-wishers who wanted to establish their own courses. Flattered, he at first offered his know-how for free, even sending blueprints of his own designs. But soon he began charging $250 for plans, blueprints, and permission to use his legally protected trademark. In effect, he was franchising the Putt-Putt concept, but only collecting an initial fee, with no continuing income. By the end of the third season there were 44 Putt-Putts in all. Clayton owned some, owned a half-interest in others, and had franchised the remainder.

The South, in particular, was fertile territory for Putt-Putt because, as Clayton said later, "Land is less expensive, laws are less stringent, and labor unions are less difficult to deal with." The South also was able to offer a longer season for the outdoor game. Putt-Putt benefited from a paucity of entertainment options in many small towns, but it even caught on big in metropolitan areas as large as New Orleans. In Metaire, Louisiana, for example--a suburb of New Orleans--the local Putt-Putt was so popular in the 1980s that it hosted as many as 30 birthday parties a day.

Clayton also was finding other ways to capitalize on the Putt-Putt concept. He developed a scheme to market all the equipment that a Putt-Putt golf course needed, including clubs, shirt patches, and light standards. From promotional local tournaments he worked his way up to a professional putting tour, including a world championship telecast as early as 1959. For fun, Clayton built another course in Hialeah, Florida for $220,000, which he kept open around the clock, even attracting groups of 50 or 60 players at the unlikely hour of 4:00 a.m. Politicians got into the act, too. Jimmy Carter made his first appearance at a Putt-Putt course, complete with family, while running for governor of Georgia in 1966.

Evolution of the Game, 1976-90

In 1976, according to a New Yorker article, there were about 1,300 Putt-Putt courses on 700 franchised sites in the United States and eight foreign countries. On any given evening, 250,000 people were playing the game, enabling Putt-Putt to gross $30 million annually. Clayton was offering franchisees 126 specially designed or standardized holes from which to choose for an 18-hole, par-36 course. Each course cost between $35,000 and $42,000 for construction, depending on the model. The putting surface was smooth green, tight-weave carpet spread over poured concrete. Each "fairway" was enclosed by an orange aluminum "fence" composed of two-by-fours anchored to the concrete. The tee was a blue rubber mat with seven indentations for a variety of placements. Obstacles consisted of aluminum blocks, posts, mounds, and inclines. The typical Putt-Putt franchise held three side-by-side 18-hole courses.

Playing well on a Putt-Putt course required the skills of a billiard player in assessing angles and caroms as well as the touch of a golf putter. The Professional Putters Association was holding about 60 tournaments a year in 1976, awarding a total of more than $300,000 in prizes. The medal-play national championship was held on Clayton's Hialeah course that year. The match-play world championship, held in Columbus, Ohio, offered a purse of $10,000 to the winner and attracted a field of 256. The finals were videotaped for an estimated 70 million viewers around the globe. (In 1991 Putt-Putt's syndicated coverage of the tour was the second longest-running sports program on television, just behind ABC"s "Wide World of Sports." The Professional Putters Association tour had, in 1996, awarded more than $6.5 million in prize money since its inception.)

The 1980s saw a new surge in the popularity of miniature golf, with more than half of the 3,500 courses in the United States at the end of the decade having been built since 1981, according to one survey. Even Manhattan, with its variety of entertainment options, offered the game, including a nine-hole course in Central Park opened by Donald Trump. But Putt-Putt, dubbed by columnist Bob Greene "what Wheaties is to the generic grain cereal at your local discount grocery store," remained true to its small-town origins. Franchisees, intent on preserving the game's squeaky-clean family image, weeded out pot-smoking youths and lit their courses brightly at night to ward off low-life elements. Interviewed in 1991, Clayton seemed paranoid about the dark forces he saw infesting American society. "Tomorrow's Putt-Putt will have a guard shack and maybe a metal detector," he told a reporter. "We want to be ready when the crack babies grow up."

One of the few changes in the Putt-Putt formula was the adoption of animal statuary, beginning in 1986, although as a decorative motif rather than an integral part of the game. Clayton designed a course in Killeen, Texas in 1989 that featured a fountain, a "mountain," and fiberglass wild animals, including a life-sized elephant. Inside the mountain rockwork was a tunnel with "stalactites" and a Putt-Putt hole. The elephant was on top of the mountain. Around the mountain was a lake with alligators and a spouting whale. In 1991 Putt-Putt had three construction crews updating courses with animal props and mountains. By then the corporate warehouse in Fayetteville was filled with fiberglass giraffes and golf balls in Easter egg colors.

Putt-Putt in the 1990s

Putt-Putt franchisees in the United States were paying the company an up-front fee of $15,000 in 1991 to use the corporate name and lay out courses from the company's 132 patented and copyrighted hole designs. Jeffrey Lipton, a Toronto lawyer, purchased the Canadian rights that year, taking his enterprise public. Lipton financed the establishment of a Putt-Putt site at the base of Toronto's CN Tower, the world's tallest freestanding structure. His company planned to retain rights to the Toronto and Vancouver metropolitan areas but was franchising sites elsewhere in Canada for a standard fee of $30,000 (in Canadian dollars), plus a minimum of $80,000 for constructing each 18-hole course (not including a building to house a year-round games room) and an eight percent royalty on revenues.

The usual U.S. Putt-Putt franchise fee at the end of 1997 was $25,000 for golf and game-room rights and $30,000 for rights that included other attractions, such as bumper boats, batting cages, and raceways. Fees for major metropolitan areas and international sites were being negotiated on an individual basis. For franchise rights in communities with populations of 30,000 or less, the initial fee was only $5,000 for a standard 18-hole golf layout or $10,000 for a franchise that included other attractions. Putt-Putt also was charging an ongoing fee of five percent on golf sales and three percent on game-room, bumper boat, batting cage, and raceway sales.

Costs for creating a Putt-Putt golf course ranged from $85,000 to $150,000. For a three-course layout, these costs ranged from $325,000 to $700,000. The cost of adding batting cages ranged from $85,000 to $155,000, bumper boats ranged from $85,000 to $175,000, and raceways ranged from $200,000 to $750,000. Franchise owners would, in addition, have to pay for video games, building a clubhouse, and buying or leasing land.

The more than 275 Putt-Putt locations in 1997 included franchises in Australia, Indonesia, Japan, Lebanon, and New Zealand as well as Canada. More than one billion games had been played worldwide. Clayton, who died in 1996, had retired the previous year and turned the business over to his daughter, Donna Lloyd. His son-in-law, David Lloyd, had become president of the company in the 1970s.

Further Reading:

  • Auchmutey, Jim, "Mr. Putt-Putt Reinvented the Game with Single Stroke of Genius," Atlanta Journal/Atlanta Constitution, July 21, 1991, p. M6.
  • Chotas, Harrell, and Kerr, Mary Lee, "Miniature Golf," Utne Reader, November/December 1992, pp. 139-40.
  • "Fifty Per Cent," New Yorker, August 2, 1976, pp. 19-21.
  • Furlong, William Barry, "The Uphill Course of Putt-Putt Golf," Saturday Evening Post, October 1980, pp. 26-29, 90.
  • Greene, Bob, "Putt-Putt a Go-Go," Esquire, October 1982, pp. 17, 19.
  • Monroe, Sylvester, "Welcome to Putter's Paradise," Time, September 11, 1989, p. 73.
  • Posner, Michael, "Putt-Putting for Profits," Macleans, September 30, 1991, pp. 46-47.
  • Thomas, Robert McG., Jr., "Don Clayton, 70, Driven Man Who Putted His Way to Riches," New York Times, April 18, 1996, p. B9.
  • Weber, Bruce, "Par for the Course," New York Times Magazine, March 18, 1990, p. 96.

Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol. 23. St. James Press, 1998.